Since the news of sex-abuse allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and accusations of cover-up broke early this summer, laity across the United States — victims, angry parishioners who felt they were kept in the dark about predators in their midst, and parents worried for their children — have spoken out loudly. They have begged the bishops for action, for transparency and for clarity.
The most concrete and official response demonstrating that the bishops have heard the pleas of the laity came Sept. 19, when the administrative committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement outlining a plan of action that included four key points: a third-party reporting system for complaints of sexual abuse by bishops; policies for restricting bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations; a “Code of Conduct” for bishops regarding sexual abuse; and support for a full investigation into disgraced Archbishop McCarrick.
Pope Francis, who met with U.S. Church leaders in Rome a week before their statement, has stressed his desire for the Church to engage in deeper listening. On Sept. 12, he announced that he has convened a meeting at the Vatican for all the presidents of the Catholic bishops’ conferences worldwide to discuss the issue of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. Days later, he issued a new apostolic constitution on the Synod of Bishops, Episcopalis Communio (Episcopal Communion), dated Sept. 15, revising the way synods function.
One of the most significant aspects to his reform of the synodal process is the elaboration of the call for Church leaders to listen to the People of God, which happens through consultation of the faithful in the particular churches around the world.
The document came only two weeks before the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment was set to begin in Rome Oct. 3. This gathering will be a key opportunity for Pope Francis and the bishops to embrace this call to deeper listening.
The instrumentum laboris (working document) for the synod acknowledges that “listening is the truest and boldest kind of language that young people are vehemently seeking from the Church.”
What will the Holy Father and bishops of the world attending the synod hear when they engage in this listening?
Since the earliest days of the synod planning process, lobbyist groups with agendas were eager to be heard and to receive a welcome at the synod. Yet the young people who gathered in Rome for the pre-synod meeting in March, while acknowledging some of their struggles to accept Church teaching on homosexuality, cohabitation, marriage, contraception and abortion, placed the highest priority on transparency and interaction with Church leaders.
“Today’s young people are longing for an authentic Church. We want to say, especially to the hierarchy of the Church, that they should be a transparent, welcoming, honest, inviting, communicative, accessible, joyful and interactive community,” the youth delegates said in the final document of the pre-synod meeting.
“The Church should condemn actions such as sexual abuse and the mismanagement of power and wealth,” the document stated. “The Church should continue to enforce her no-tolerance stance on sexual abuse within her institutions, and her humility will undoubtedly raise its credibility among the world’s young people.”
That sentiment, written in March, has assumed a heightened sense of urgency in the wake of the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick and the controversial claims of what the Vatican knew in the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
Young Catholics are deeply troubled by the crises in the Church. Hundreds of them issued a public letter in First Things, answering the call of the synod to hear from young Catholics.
“Some of us are younger than others, but we were all children in the decades leading up to the sexual-abuse crisis of 2002,” they wrote. “In light of that experience and the recent revelations about Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, we answer the Church’s invitation to speak.”
Those young Catholics gave voice to the plea of many of the faithful when they told the Church’s shepherds, “As Catholics, we believe that the Church’s teaching on human nature and sexuality is life-giving and leads to holiness. We believe that just as there is no room for adultery in marriages, so there is no room for adultery against the Bride of Christ. We need bishops to make clear that any act of sexual abuse or clerical unchastity degrades the priesthood and gravely harms the Church.”
Just as plaintive were the young priests who, also writing recently in First Things, issued their own public letter to the bishops.
“The synod’s instrumentum laboris,” they wrote, “concedes too much to the sexual revolution, which has caused such great harm to young people.”
They criticized the document for not providing the “analysis of models that have proved successful in forming young people in the faith” or “guidance on how the sociocultural concerns of young people can be raised and oriented toward a supernatural end.”
“We find instead vague references to ‘some young people’ who wish for this or that part of the Church’s teaching to change,” they wrote. “But we know many young people who do not want the Church’s teachings to change, who instead want them proclaimed more vigorously — precisely because they see them as the antidote to the cultural wasteland in which we live.”
As evidenced by these open letters and the pre-synodal document, many young people want Church teachings clearly taught, even if they struggle to accept them or understand them.
As one of the young delegates involved in the Vatican’s pre-synod meeting, Katie Prejean McGrady, told the Register, “We want a Church that proclaims truth profoundly. We want a Church that proclaims the teachings of our Church honestly. We want a Church that proclaims those teachings in an articulate way that we can understand. And even if we disagree or don’t understand fully, many, many young people still want the Church to teach those things to us.”
Pope Francis has repeatedly called for Catholics — especially young Catholics — to make a noise and be heard. He promises to listen, and listening means hearing authentically from all young people — and, especially at this moment when the lay faithful around the world are so deeply troubled by the clergy sex-abuse crisis, hearing from those who are speaking so eloquently about the necessity to hold true to what the Church has always taught about human sexuality.
Listening also must lead to discernment about the best path forward in responding to this grave crisis and to decisive action that will address the undeniable failings of our shepherds. The U.S. bishops have taken an important first step in that direction, and Catholics around the world are now looking to Rome for further guidance.